Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'm a Farmer

"I was raised on a farm," I said, "as was my father, and his father before him. I never thought of doing nothing, but farming." I pulled my akubra hat down a little further over my eyes, emphasising my point. As I did so, I notice again how old and wrinkled my hand looks; it's an old man's hand.

"Fair enough," replied Tom, my visitor. Being from the church, I guess it was his job to be nice to me; no doubt he would try to convert me, sooner or later. If he was looking for money he was right out of luck, though. I didn't have fifty bucks to be swindled out of. Still, I didn't mind having a chat when I could spare the time.

I gave Tom another long, hard look. I wasn't sure how old he was - couldn't have been much over thirty. He was a bit on the heavy side, and his face was quite white and pasty. He was already getting sun burnt on his face and neck. He was a city boy who ate too much and didn't get out enough.

He asked, "So, is this the farm you grew up on?"

I laughed. "No," I said, "I grew up in the Darling Downs. When dad died, we sold up, and the money, for what it was, got carved up between me and my three brothers. Esme and I came out here in the eighties, to get our own place, nice and big."

"You must have done pretty well for yourself?" Tom said. He was making conversation I guess, and fishing a bit, but he clearly didn't have a clue.

I said, "Not so well, mate, not so well. The bank has finally foreclosed on us. They're selling this property in two weeks."

Tom wasn't sure what to make of it, and was quiet for a minute. I could here his brain ticking over. In the end, he asked, "Where are you off to?" Good an answer as any, I suppose.

"The sale price on this land should cover our mortgage and leave us with just enough to buy a small house in a small town. Haven't decided where."

"Really? You've been farming this property since the eighties, and that's all the money you'll make?"

"Uh-huh," I grunted at him. What the hell, I thought; may as well tell the lad a story. "I came here in 1982 and bought this place with a nice loan from the bank. Place was lush and green - there was a lot of money to be made running cattle through this country.

"Then, Esme gets pregnant with our first daughter. That was nice. Then we have drought. For those next four years, we had five inches of rain; in total. No grass for the cows, no money for hay. We lost a lot of stock."

"Wow," said Tom, scratching his foot in the dirt.

"Yeah, wow," I said. I didn't mean to be sarcastic; it just came out like that. "The first decent downpour we had, and our little four year old girl is terrified, because she's never seen rain. That was a good season. The grass came back, and the cows started to do well. Esme may have even smiled." I hadn't meant for it to get personal, I just haven't told anyone else before. I leaving soon, and probably wouldn't meet this man again. That made me want to talk more. Who wants to dump all there baggage on a friend?

Tom smiled at my story. He wasn't laughing at me, or anything. He smiled in a good way, like what happened to me meant something to him. "I guess it wasn't enough, that good season?" he asked.

I spat into the dirt. "No, it wasn't enough," I said. "Not even close. Another five years of drought, right after that. All our savings went into buying feed, or cattle, or food for the table. We got overdrafts on the mortgage. Nobody likes to beg, most of all me. And if you've got to beg, our bank manager's not the one you want to beg from."

Tom was looking away now; maybe he couldn't face me. Maybe he thought I was going to cry. I wasn't even sure that I wasn't. He put his finger right on it when he asked, "Those times must have been hard on Esme; you and her together."

Just thinking about it made me swear. I apologised to the reverend, but he said it was okay. I went on, "We fought like cats and dogs, usually over money. She'd buy something for Maria - our daughter - or for the house. God knows they both deserved it, but I was always just hoping, and hoping, that we could just last, you know, if we just tightened our belts. Pull through the hard times, and just keep going until the seasons came back, and the rain was good, and the grass was green, and the cattle got fat, and had lots of calves...

"But it didn't get better. In all those years Esme would have only gotten one, maybe two new dresses. Now, the house is run down. The carpet's worn out, the curtains are faded and the paint is peeling off the walls. She did real well, you know; but the fighting was like cancer between us. Bickering just became a part of life. We get on all right now, mostly, but I think she only stuck with me because she was stubborn. I'm sure she still loves me, in a kind of way, but you, know, something died between us in that last drought."

I felt like a smoke, but wasn't sure if Tom would be offended. Then I thought, stuff it; my hands were shaking. I took my smoke packet from my top pocket and lit one up. Then Tom asked me for one too, and I nearly fall over. We stood quietly for a while, smoking, until we'd both finished.

Eventually, Tom broke the silence. "I'm really sorry that I didn't get to meet you, and get to know you, sooner," he said, "before you had to leave. You know, I've only just arrived in the area..."

I cut him off. "There's nothing to be sorry about," I said. "You just arrived; I'm just leaving. That's what people do. Whatever happens, will happen." How many times have I told myself that?, I wondered.

Tom sighed, but nodded his head. "I appreciate you being so frank with me," he said. "I've certainly learnt a lot about the hardships of farming in just a few minutes; but, I've got one question."

"Shoot!" I said, turning to face him. I was surprised to see the redness in his eyes. The man sure was quick to feel pain that wasn't his.

"You've suffered so much from farming. Drought, losing money, losing stock, humiliation... the impact on your marriage; and I'm sure it all took some kind of toll on your children. Tell me, why did you do it? Why did you stick with farming through all those years, and through all the hardship?"

I smiled and laughed out loud. "That easy," I said. "It's all about the lifestyle. I wouldn't have given it up for anything in the world."

1 comment:

Bernard said...

I've talked with a few Australian farmers, and a similar streak runs through all of them.

A lot of the themes - and the punchline - to this particular story come from a series of conversations with a lady I know whose father is a farmer; and who wouldn't do anything else.